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Life Is Sweet

Brian Noyes left a successful career in magazine publishing to start his own bakery.

Brian Noyes, owner of Red Truck Bakery

Courtesy of Dwight McNeill

In Virginia hunt country, 47 miles from Washington, D.C., you’ll find the town of Warrenton, population 9,735. On Main Street, across from the town library and next to the courthouse, there’s a small, refurbished filling station with a cherry-red pickup truck parked out front. This Norman Rockwell painting come to life is the work of Brian Noyes, 56, who, after more than 25 years in magazine publishing, decided to chuck it all in to start Red Truck Bakery.

Noyes helped launch local magazines in Tampa, Fla., Detroit, and Houston, then he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1984 to help the Washington Post redesign its Sunday magazine. He also served stints as art director at House & Garden, Preservation, and Smithsonian magazines. But no matter where he worked, Noyes says, he always brought in tarts and pies for his co-workers.

After living in the D.C. area for 11 years, Noyes bought a farmhouse in Cherrydale, a suburban neighborhood of Arlington, Va., which he restored with his partner, Dwight McNeill, a residential architect. Then, while he was still working at Smithsonian, he found a beautifully restored 1954 Ford pickup at a high-end auto-consignment shop. That purchase changed his life.

Noyes’ interest in baking started with a series of cross-country family bake-offs. Noyes would bake bread and send it to his uncle in Florida, along with the recipe. His uncle would then send back his own creations, along with playful corrections to Noyes’ recipes. Noyes credits his uncle with perfecting the recipe for Red Truck’s signature whole-grain wheat bread with honey, dried cranberries, and walnuts. He went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America and L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. “He’s gone now, and I think, ‘I sure wish he knew what I was doing these days,’ ” Noyes says.

In 2006, Noyes obtained a cottage-industry permit from the county to start baking and selling his wares out of his farmhouse. He would bake all day Friday, then on Saturday mornings he would sell an assortment of baked goods out of the truck bed outside upscale country stores in the Virginia Piedmont region. He called his business the Red Truck Bakery. It wasn’t long before he found people in parking lots waiting for his truck to arrive. Noyes recruited investors from the farm town of Orlean, Va., where many well-off white-collar professionals live, for the startup costs of a bricks-and-mortar bakery. He figured it was just a matter of finding the right location. Then the economy tanked.

“I lost all my investors. They were just circling the wagons around themselves, so I was stuck with no help,” he says.

Just as Noyes thought his dream was dead, Red Truck got a break that completely changed his business model. As he tells it, in 2007 one of Noyes’ regular customers took some Red Truck baked goods to a Fourth of July picnic in Little Washington, Va., which New York Times food writer Marian Burros also attended. She was so delighted with the food that she called Noyes and asked him to send her some items for further testing: Gruyère quiche, mincemeat pie, almond stollen, fruitcake, rum cake, and sweet potato pecan bourbon pie. Then, in the 2008 edition of her annual holiday food guide, Burros wrote, “One of my favorite discoveries is Brian Noyes, the owner of the Red Truck Bakery in Virginia, who has a deft hand with pastries and an unerring sense of flavor balance.”

The day before Burros’ review was published, the Red Truck Bakery’s website received 24 hits; the day after it appeared, it got more than 57,000. People across the country flooded Noyes’ inbox with orders, and he had to figure out how to meet a national demand. He spent the month of December at home, baking, boxing, and shipping orders for the holiday season.

“I knew it was time to make this a full-time gig—I had just turned 50 and thought, ‘If not now, it will never happen.’ So in 2008 I gave notice at Smithsonian magazine and spent the next year trying to raise money, searching for a location, and getting the place ready to open,” Noyes says.

Burros isn’t the only fan of Noyes’ creations. Michael Stern, who writes about food for Parade magazine and blogs at roadfood.com, said Red Truck has “[m]aybe the best chicken salad sandwich anywhere.” Washingtonian named Red Truck’s citrusy pumpkin pie the best in the metro area, and the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Red Truck makes “the best granola in North America.”

 

But the greatest boost Noyes could have hoped for came from one mysteriously persistent customer from Chicago. In 2008, a woman ordered a sweet potato bourbon pecan pie to be shipped to Hawaii for Christmas. She then proceeded to email him multiple times confirming and reconfirming that the pie would be shipped in time. “She got so anal about it,” he says, “almost to the point of being troublesome.”

After the shipment went through, the woman apologized for being such a pain, explaining that it was her job to supply the sweet potato pie for the Obama family’s holiday gathering. The Obamas’ regular pie shop in Chicago wasn’t able to supply them that year, so she decided to order from Red Truck after reading Burros’ review.

When asked if he still supplies the White House with desserts, Noyes offers a discreet response: “I’m not supposed to really talk about that.”

Noyes said the combination of turning 50 and being a little naive about the challenges of starting a new business helped him make the leap. “If I were more analytical and not so seat-of-my-pants, I probably wouldn’t have done this,” he says. “When I saw that this old gas station was available, I didn’t even think about it. I just thought, ‘If ever it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen right there.’ ”

So he cashed in his savings, signed the lease in March of 2009, and opened for business that August. Since then, Red Truck’s payroll has expanded to 15 people, and Noyes plans to open another bakery in The Plains, a town of 220 that’s a short drive from Warrenton. He’s in the final stages of securing a location for the new shop, a former pharmacy in a 19th-century mercantile building.

Noyes says he never misses his old career in publishing, and he’s been able to do the best part of his magazine job—playing with typography—while designing the branding for his next bakery. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a drastic career change. “I wouldn’t do it without a good amount of money in the bank,” he says. “I still go to sleep each night wondering about meeting payroll. But I’m making this place pay for itself.” 

One weekend a former boss visited the bakery without knowing that Noyes was involved. “We just looked at each other, and he pointed at me and said, ‘I know you!’ I said, ‘Here I am! This is what I do now!’ ” And despite the late-night worries, he loves it.

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